It is welcome news that the Korea summit is once again set to go ahead – particularly for those living in the South

It remains to be seen whether the Singapore summit will happen in reality. Even if it does, it is not the end of the process, but merely a significant moment at its beginning

Monday 28 May 2018 15:02
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North and South Korean leaders hold surprise meeting

It is not impossible that Kim Jong-un is a master of diplomacy. Certainly, he is making the Americans appear if not amateurish then unsure, although that in itself may not be difficult.

The on-again, off-again nature of the summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea may, paradoxically, be emblematic of Donald Trump’s confused presidency, but is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the vacillation is a consequence of Mr Kim’s manipulation of the scenario than part of a White House master plan.

That the proposed meeting between these giant egos is now seemingly set to proceed once more is welcome news, of course. Putting to one side the extraordinary theatre that surrounds these two strongmen of 21st century politics, it is unquestionable that the world – and especially the Korean peninsula – will be a safer place if Mr Kim curtails his nuclear ambitions.

To that end, the quiet resolve of South Korea remains crucial in bridging the divide (rhetorical or substantive) between Pyongyang and Washington.

Indeed, it is the people living in the South who – along with their neighbours in the North – have most to gain from full and lasting detente and from Mr Kim’s potential agreement to halt his nuclear weapons programme.

While Mr Trump’s administration plays up the potential threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear missiles to US citizens, the anxiety that may be felt by Americans is as nothing to that experienced by the residents of Seoul. For them, this nascent peace progress could truly be life-changing.

No wonder then that the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is trying his hardest to keep the show on the road. Having reportedly been kept in the dark about Mr Trump’s decision last week to “cancel” the Singapore summit, Mr Moon sprang a surprise of his own when he met Mr Kim at the border on Saturday.

The positive noises made by both North and South in the aftermath of that meeting indicate the importance of that nexus, which increasingly appears to act as a counterweight to the more volatile relationship between Messrs Kim and Trump.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Singapore summit will take place. Even if it does, it is not the end of the process, but merely a significant moment at its beginning.

For Mr Trump, there is plainly an egotistical imperative at play. Having seen his predecessors fail to bring Korea to heel, he appears to regard a resolution of the situation as a demonstration of his deal-making brand of global diplomacy.

He will perhaps have lapped up talk about the Nobel peace prize; but in any event, the chance to agree a process of denuclearisation with Pyongyang would show the rest of the world that “America First” does not mean there is no room for America to flex its global muscle.

What about those around Mr Trump, however? The re-emergence of John Bolton as national security adviser has raised more than a few eyebrows, and his recent comparison of North Korea to Libya was indicative of his belief that, ultimately, hostile foreign states must do as they are told or face the consequences.

Whether that provocative pronouncement came with Mr Trump’s blessing is difficult to fathom. At first glance it appeared not; but vice-president Mike Pence’s subsequent repetition of the comparison brought the matter once more into the open. Certainly, Bolton is a hawk of the sharpest-clawed type: if he holds sway over Mr Trump, North Korea will continue to wonder – or proclaim to be unsure – whether American peace overtures are as melodic as they seem.

White House sources contend that Mr Kim’s willingness to meet Mr Moon, and to reiterate his desire for the Singapore summit to go ahead, show he is desperate for a deal in order to end the sanctions that have crippled for the North Korean economy.

Yet at every stage in these peculiar proceedings, Mr Kim has given the impression that he is playing a game for which he has invented the rules and in which he is frequently a step ahead.

He has seemingly secured the North’s friendship with Beijing and he has wooed President Moon. He believes he has demonstrated the kind of military might and rhetorical fire that will ensure for his people an end to sanctions on his terms, not America’s.

If he is right, and if Mr Trump’s ego can cope, peace may be possible; if he is wrong, or if the US president thinks he is being played for a fool, there remains considerable danger ahead.

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